Wilderness Underfoot: The hackberry tree: A natural food source for wildlife

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11170395891157.jpg’, ”, ‘The hackberry tree – Celtis occidentalis. This ornamental shade tree can grow to heights of 130 feet in more moderate climates, but in our region it tends to stay under 90 feet. It is widespread throughout the Midwest, and because it tolerates a wide range of temperatures and growing conditions, it thrives from Florida to southern Canada. Although it prefers deep, moist soils, this tree is tough enough to withstand poor, dry soils with annual rainfall measuring as little as 14 inches (our region gets more than 30 inches annually). The wood of the hackberry tree is somewhat heavy, and yet soft. It’s not an important material for carpentry or building, but many woodworkers appreciate the banding and ripples that sometimes appear in its grain. Surprisingly, despite its large size, this tree is a good choice for making a bonsai or miniature garden. It trains well as a miniature because its trunk and branches tolerate twisting and gnarling to create the classic bonsai character.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11170396031157.jpg’, ”, ”);

If you’re interested in natural landscaping for wildlife, hackberry is an excellent tree to consider planting. Birds and other animals enjoy the berries, which supply food well into the winter. In fact, these creatures are the most important means of dispersal for the seeds of the hackberry tree: seed pits are either spit out after the pulp is eaten, or they are passed through an animal’s digestive system. After the pit is gnawed on or partially digested, the seeds germinate more easily.

Hackberries attract songbirds such as robins, cardinals, cedar waxwings, and tufted titmice. Out in the countryside, the fruit is also fed on by quail, grouse, pheasants, and wild turkeys. Squirrels eat the fruit, but they also relish the “nipple galls” that form when leaves are infected by small parasitic insects.

As an ornamental or shade tree, the hackberry has great attributes. This member of the elm family has been used to replace the elm tree in regions where Dutch elm disease is common. It grows well, with a full canopy for shade. It is drought-hardy as well.

There are some important considerations when deciding whether to plant a hackberry. The tree is prone to ice damage and bark injuries. Its roots can be shallow, and they tend to raise sidewalks or driveways if planted too close. Its canopy can spread out and interfere with utility lines. And some people consider the berries and twigs shed from the tree to be a nuisance.

From the May 25-31, 2005, issue

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